Lane v. Wilson

Citation307 U.S. 268,83 L.Ed. 1281,59 S.Ct. 872
Decision Date22 May 1939
Docket NumberNo. 460,460
PartiesLANE v. WILSON et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Messrs. Charles A. Chandler, of Muskogee, Okl., and James M. Nabrit, Jr., of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Messrs. Joseph C. Stone, of Muskogee, Okl., and Charles G. Watts, of Wagoner, Okl., for respondents.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The case is here on certiorari to review the judgment of the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirming that of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, entered upon a directed verdict in favor of the defendants. The action was one for $5,000 damages brought under Section 1979 of the Revised Statutes, 8 U.S.C. § 43, 8 U.S.C.A. § 43, by a colored citizen claiming discriminatory treatment resulting from electoral legislation of Oklahoma, in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, U S.C.A. Const. Certiorari was granted, 305 U.S. 591, 59 S.Ct. 249, 83 L.Ed. —-, because of the importance of the question and an asserted conflict with the decision in Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S.Ct. 926, 59 L.Ed. 1340, L.R.A.1916A, 1124.

The constitution under which Oklahoma was admitted into the Union regulated the suffrage by Article III, Okl.St.Ann., whereby its 'qualified electors' were to be 'citizens of the State * * * who are over the age of twenty-one years' with disqualifications in the case of felons, paupers and lunatics. Section 1. Soon after its admission the suffrage provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution were radically amended by the addition of a literacy test from which white voters were in effect relieved through the operation of a 'grandfather clause.' Okl.St.Ann.Const. art. 3, § 4a. The clause was stricken down by this Court as violative of the prohibition against discrimination 'on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude' of the Fifteenth Amendment. This outlawry occurred on June 21, 1915. In the meantime the Oklahoma general election of 1914 had been based on the offending 'grandfather clause.' After the invalidation of that clause a special session of the Oklahoma legislature enacted a new scheme for registration as a prerequisite to voting. Oklahoma Laws of 1916, Act of February 26, 1916, c. 24. Section 4 of this statute (now Section 5654, Oklahoma Statutes 1931, 26 Okl.St.Ann. § 74) 1 was obviously directed towards the consequences of the decision in Guinn v. United States, supra. Those who had voted in the general election of 1914, automatically remained qualified voters. The new registration requirements affected only others. These had to apply for registration between April 30, 1916 and May 11, 1916, if qualified at that time, with an extension to June 30, 1916, given only to those 'absent from the county * * * during such period of time, or * * * prevented by sickness or unavoidable misfortune from registering * * * within such time'. The crux of the present controversy is the validity of this registration scheme, with its dividing line between white citizens who had voted under the 'grandfather clause' immunity prior to Guinn v. United States, supra, and citizens who were outside it, and the not more than 12 days as the normal period of registration for the theretofore proscribed class.

The petitioner, a colored citizen of Oklahoma, who was the plaintiff below and will hereafter be referred to as such, sued three county election officials for declining to register him on October 17, 1934. He was qualified for registration in 1916 but did not then get on the registration list. The evidence is in conflict whether he presented himself in that year for registration and, if so, under what circumstances registration was denied him. The fact is that plaintiff did not get on the register in 1916. Under the terms of the statute he thereby permanently lost the right to register and hence the right to vote. The central claim of plaintiff is that of the unconstitutionality of Section 5654. The defendants joined issue on this claim and further insisted that if there had been illegality in a denial of the plaintiff's right to registration, his proper recourse was to the courts of Oklahoma. The District Court took the case from the jury and its action was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. It found no proof of discrimination against negroes in the administration of Section 5654 and denied that the legislation was in conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment. 10 Cir., 98 F.2d 980.

The defendants urge two bars to the plaintiff's recovery, apart from the constitutional validity of Section 5654. They say that on the plaintiff's own assumption of its invalidity, there is no Oklahoma statute under which he could register and therefore no right to registration has been denied. Secondly, they argue that the state procedure for determining claims of discrimination must be employed before invoking a federal judiciary. These contentions will be considered first, for the disposition of a constitutional question must be reserved to the last.

The first objection derives from a misapplication of Giles v. Harris, 189 U.S. 475, 23 S.Ct. 639, 640, 47 L.Ed. 909. In that case a bill in equity was brought by a colored man on behalf of himself 'and on behalf of more than five thousand negroes, citizens of the county of Montgomery, Alabama, similarly situated' which in effect asked the federal court 'to supervise the voting in that State by officers of the court.' What this Court called a 'new and extraordinary situation' was found 'strikingly' to reinforce 'the argument that equity cannot undertake now, any more than it has in the past, to enforce political rights'. See 189 U.S. at page 487, 23 S.Ct. at page 642, 47 L.Ed. 909.2 Apart from this traditional restriction upon the exercise of equitable jurisdiction there was another difficulty in Giles v. Harris, supra. The plaintiff there was in effect asking for specific performance of his right under Alabama electoral legislation. This presupposed the validity of the legislation under which he was claiming. But the whole theory of his bill was the invalidity of this legislation. Naturally enough, this Court took his claim at its face value and found no legislation on the basis of which specific performance could be decreed.3

This case is very different from Giles v. Harris, supra—the difference having been explicitly foreshadowed by Giles v. Harris, supra itself. In that case this Court declared 'we are not prepared to say that an action at law could not be maintained on the facts alleged in the bill.' 189 U.S. at page 485, 23 S.Ct. at page 641, 47 L.Ed. 909. That is precisely the basis of the present action, brought under the following 'appropriate legislation' of Congress to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment: 'Every person who, under color of any statute, * * * of any State * * * subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States * * * within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law * * *.'4

The Fifteenth Amendment secures freedom from discrimination on account of race in matters affecting the franchise. Whosoever 'under color of any statute' subjects another to such discrimination thereby deprives him of what the Fifteenth Amendment secures and, under Section 1979 becomes 'liable to the party injured in an action at law.' The theory of the plaintiff's action is that the defendants, acting under color of Section 5654, did discriminate against him because that Section inherently operates discriminatorily. If this claim is sustained his right to sue under R.S. Section 1979 follows. The basis of this action is inequality of treatment though under color of law, not denial of the right to vote. Compare Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S.Ct. 446, 71 L.Ed. 759.

The other preliminary objection to the maintenance of this action is likewise untenable. To vindicate his present grievance the plaintiff did not have to pursue whatever remedy may have been open to him in the state courts. Normally, the state legislative process, sometimes exercised through administrative powers conferred on state courts, must be completed before resort to the federal courts can be had. Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210, 29 S.Ct. 67, 53 L.Ed. 150. But the state procedure open for one in the plaintiff's situation (Section 5654) has all the indicia of a conventional judicial proceeding and does not confer upon the Oklahoma courts any of the discretionary or initiatory functions that are characteristic of administrative agencies. See Section 1 of Article IV of the Oklahoma Constitution, Okl.St.Ann.; Oklahoma Cotton Ginners' Ass'n v. State, 174 Okl. 243, 51 P.2d 327. Barring only exceptional circumstances, see e.g. Gilchrist v. Interborough Rapid Transit Co., 279 U.S. 159, 49 S.Ct. 282, 73 L.Ed. 652, or explicit statutory requirements, e.g. 48 Stat. 775, 50 Stat. 738, 28 U.S.C. § 41(1), 28 U.S.C.A. § 41(1), resort to a federal court may be had without first exhausting the judicial remedies of state courts. Bacon v. Rut- land R.R., 232 U.S. 134, 34 S.Ct. 283, 58 L.Ed. 538; Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. v. Kuykendall, 265 U.S. 196, 44 S.Ct. 553, 68 L.Ed. 975.

We therefore cannot avoid passing on the merits of plaintiff's constitutional claims. The reach of the Fifteenth Amendment against contrivances by a state to thwart equality in the enjoyment of the right to vote by citizens of the United States regardless of race or color, has been amply expounded by prior decisions. Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347, 35 S.Ct. 926, 59 L.Ed. 1340, L.R.A.1916A, 1124; Myers v. Anderson, 238 U.S. 368, 35 S.Ct. 932, 59 L.Ed. 1349. The Amendment nullifies sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination. It hits onerous procedural requirements which effectively handicap exercise of the...

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